What is it about historical weaponry that draws the minds and captures the imaginations of readers and writers alike?
Historical weapons are a stable of urban fantasy and the superhero genre, as well as historical fiction and fantasy, where they find a more predictable home. Over the years, swords, bows, maces, and battleaxes have been–understandably–superseded by firearms. So why the lingering attraction, when firearms have superior rate of fire, force, and accuracy? Is it the elegance of the weapons (now lost in an era of mass manufacture) which were once lovingly handcrafted, delicately inlaid or inscribed, and bound by hand? Or is it the appeal of an era when war held more honor and less horror, when, to kill a man, you first had to look him in the face? Is it the superiority of the skill required?
This series of articles will examine historical weapons of mass destruction, legendary sword-making techniques of both the East and the West, and address common misconceptions about modern weaponry. As the sword is, without rival, the weapon of choice in fantasy, I will publish the article on historical sword-making first.
Katana. Damascus steel blades. Legendary names for weapons created using strikingly similar techniques, creating a similar product–a high-carbon steel edge over a softer iron core.
The techniques used to create Damascus steel were once thought lost to time. Only recently have they been recreated, following the discovery of carbon nanotubes hiding underneath the iridescent sheen and wood-grained appearance of the surface.
The steel in Damascus blades and katana–called “Damascus steel” in the West and “tamahagane” in Japan–is smelted in a remarkably similar way. Broken iron ore (or iron sand, called “satetsu” in Japan) is heated with plant material–wood or bamboo for Damascus steel, charcoal in Japan–which then infuses the metal with carbon. In Damascus steel, this has the added benefit of transferring carbon nanotubes from the plant matter into the steel itself, rendering the steel remarkably hard.
However, high-carbon steel is brittle, easily broken, and this process leaves a steel-iron amalgam that is high in both metallic and organic impurities.
This is where the second major technique involved in making these legendary blades comes in. It’s called pattern welding. Steel is heated, folded on itself, beaten until the layers merge, shedding impurities and excess carbon in the process. This creates a more homogeneous steel, varying layers of harder and more brittle steel with softer layers of less brittle iron, creating a tough final product. The metallic trace impurities merge with the blade, creating a better end product than pure steel alone. However, the process must be carefully monitored, as higher temperatures can cause the iron to separate from the carbon, and, if folded too many times, the steel loses the advantage of strength and flexibility as the layers merge entirely. The folding pattern is dependent on the part of the blade the steel will form.
In Japan, the art of sword-making was historically considered a sacred ritual, and may take weeks to complete. In Japanese sword-making, a low-carbon steel/iron amalgam is used to create the core of the blade, a slightly-harder but still resilient steel to form the skin, and the high-carbon tamahagane for the edge. This results in a hard-edged blade which holds an edge well while still being springy and flexible enough to resist breakage. The steel must also be protected between foldings by a layer of wet clay and straw ash, to prevent the iron from oxidizing and help remove impurities. Due to the loss of impurities, the iron may be reduced to as little as 1/10 of its initial weight.
Finally, katanas and other Japanese swords are heat-treated, rather than quenched like European-made blades are. Before the swords are heated, a thin layer of clay is added around the edge so that it cools more quickly than the thickly-coated back edge. This results in a harder edge and a springier spine, as well as bending the sword into its signature curve.
And a word about the so-called “blood channel” or fuller: the purpose of the fuller is not to allow blood to flow more freely and allow the sword to be more easily withdrawn from the wound, but to make the blade lighter without sacrificing its structural integrity.
The blade is then polished, which takes easily as much skill to complete, since a bad polishing job can damage a sword, while a good one can render it mirror-like and perfectly smooth.
In my next article, I will talk about crossbows–a weapon so deadly that their use was banned in warfare by the Pope.